Feast of the Ascension – May 24, 2009 – Blessed Sacrament
In this archdiocese, this great feast, which used to be celebrated on a Thursday, has been transferred to this Sunday so that more people can participate in this further celebration of the victory Christ has won by his resurrection. The fifty days of this celebration will reach their climax next Sunday with the feast of Pentecost, the climax of Christ’s redemptive work and the initiation of the work of the Spirit in the life of the Church, a work that through all the generations that have succeeded to that of the Apostles has gathered us together here today.
In one sense the Ascension is not a distinct feast from that of the resurrection, but an explication of the Easter mystery. We are not celebrating a physical journey, as if Christ had to travel some thousands, or millions, of miles in order to move from this earth to heaven. Heaven is not a physical place distant from this physical place by some physical miles. The cloud that receives Christ is not a vehicle transporting him from here to there. The cloud throughout the Scriptures is a symbol of the divine presence, and for Christ to enter the cloud is for him to complete his work and to rest in his Father’s glory. In the same way, when St. Paul says today that God seated him at his right hand in the heavens, he is not speaking of a physical place, as if God has a right hand and Christ a seat; he is referring instead to the supreme position Christ occupies, as St. Paul puts it,” above every principality, authority, power and dominion, and every name that is named.” Paul is here drawing upon popular notions of intermediate powers that were thought to control human affairs, and by naming them he is saying that they too are powerless before God and before his Christ.
The imagery of the Ascension has its place, perhaps, but it should not be pressed today when our view of the universe is not that of the three-storied world imagined in the ancient world: an underworld (evil), this physical world we know, and an overworld (good), the realm of God. The important thing is to focus on Christ and his work. We believe that Jesus Christ came into this world in order to testify to the truth: to the truth about God, to the truth about the world, to the truth about our humanity. We believe that his witness was not only through the parables by which he tried to tease us out of our easy certainties, not only through his other teachings, but also through his deeds, the wonders by which he embodied his message of the reconciling forgiveness of his Father, and especially through the courage that enabled him to endure rejection and the love that enabled him to turn this great injustice into the great source of our salvation.
Through our various encounters with him in the course of the liturgical year, we verify for ourselves what he meant when he said that he is the way, the truth, and the life. He lived a fully human life, like ours in all things except sin, as Scripture says, and in that life embodied the truth by which we are to live, the path on which we are to walk, the life that we are to live in that truth and on that path. The Ascension may mark the end of that revelation, but it does not represent a departure of Christ from among us. He continues to meet us, we continue to meet him, in the Scriptures that represent his permanent challenge and call, and in the sacraments that in the simple realities of water and bread and wine and oil and human touch continue the method of incarnation supremely realized in him himself. The promise of the Spirit has been made, and we will celebrate its fulfilment next Sunday, and by that Spirit Christ will always be with us and we may always be with him.